Will Power – why it’s so unreliable.

Posted by & filed under Health and Fitness.

There is a book by Jonathan Heidt called The Happiness Hypothesis and in it he uses the metaphor of the elephant and the mahout (or the man that ‘controls’ the elephant). I’m just about to read this book and find out what he means by this metaphor, but, as someone who’s been grappling with how the brain and body communicate with each other, I think this the most marvellous metaphor for what really goes on and why trying to change a habit or lose an addiction by using will power alone is doomed to frustration, self loathing and failure.

The mahout thinks he is in charge of the enormous elephant beneath him.  Hah!  One 70kg man on top of 2,500 – 6,000kg of pachydermal power.  And this is a marvellous metaphor for how the brain works: the mahout is the frontal cortex – positioned right at the front of the brain and the area where we make our conscious decisions.  It could be likened to the CEO of a vast, multi-national corporation; an important man, but I doubt he (or, a vanishingly small chance, she) knows what the cleaning rota is for the office he’s based in, never mind the office in Bankok.

A nice relaxing bath.

What the brain is processing on a micro second to micro second basis is simply mind boggling, and the mahout only knows a tiny fraction of that input, or we’d be completely unable to make any decisions at all.

For me, the take home point is that if the elephant is hungry, tired, stressed, eating food that does not suit it, hurt, or, of course, in musth, the mahout will have less and less control.  And so it is with us; if we neglect our basic needs, the elephant has to take control to get what it needs.

Eat a sugary diet and we suffer a sugar drop so have to get more sugar into the system – no matter what the government or people like me are warning us.

Neglect sleep and we start to overdo the coffee/sugary stuff to keep ourselves going, no matter what dieting/health decisions we have made.

Allow stress to get on top of us and all manner of unwanted behaviours begin.

Ignore pain – keep driving that elephant on – and eventually something catastrophic will happen to stop us.

And so the list goes on.  It is very easy to ignore our basic needs for good food, sleep, and proper rest – and indeed, nurturing ourselves properly could be seen as rather boring.  I suppose it’s a matter of priorities; if we want high energy and the body of our dreams, we have to keep the elephant happy.

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